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The Legendary Pontiac GTO: The Car That Started It All

Vukasin HerbezMay 7, 2019

The story of the first proper muscle car, the 1964 Pontiac GTO has become a part of collective knowledge and global automotive heritage. Rarely in car history did a single car become so influential. It not only defined and started the whole class but also stayed relevant long after they discontinued it. The Pontiac GTO was not the first muscle car or American performance model, but it was the first affordable, mid-sized, V8 powered car.

And it set the template for all the other models, regardless of their model year, body style or drivetrain. So, it is safe to say the GTO created the muscle car as a segment and cultural phenomenon. Pontiac produced it between 1964 and 1974, and again briefly from 2004 to 2006. Also, the GTO was a great performance buy and recognizable sight on the streets. With its signature styling details, aggressive stance and sleek silhouette, the GTO was among the finest looking cars of the era.

And even though Pontiac as a brand is dead, the GTO nameplate will live forever. So, keep reading to learn about the best GTOs from its rich history. You’ll find out how the GTO came to be and became one of the greatest automotive legends ever. And finally, you’ll get a look at those classic models as well as concept cars and modern GTOs.

  1. 1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO

In the early ‘60s, Pontiac was a success on the drag strips all across America. Soon, the performance aspect became a powerful marketing tool since the new generation of buyers wanted powerful, fast cars. Pontiac wanted to capitalize on its success, but the company was reluctant to invest in a sports car to build from scratch. Also, all their production models were big, heavy vehicles.

However, a young engineer named John Z. DeLorean thought of a genius idea. He wanted to install a big, powerful 396 V8 into a light, intermediate Tempest two-door body. He knew it was an easy and affordable way to create a true performance machine. The result was the Tempest GTO, an option on the Tempest intermediate model. For just $295, buyers could get a high performance 396 V8 with 325 HP in a standard or 348 HP in the famous Tri-Power form.

The package included a manual transmission, unique trim, GTO decals and a dual exhaust. And since the car was light, the Tempest GTO delivered a convincing performance. In fact, in 1964, it was one of the quickest American cars on the market. Even Corvette owners weren’t safe from Tempest GTOs lurking on stop lights across the country.

However, the Pontiac sales manager wasn’t particularly fond of the model and thought the GTO package didn’t have perspective. His estimate of a maximum of 5,000 examples per year was drastically surpassed by the official sales figures of over 32,000 copies. The big sales made it clear the GTO was a hit among younger buyers and that a star was born.

  1. Pontiac GTO Vs. Ferrari GTO

The GTO didn’t just introduce the innovative concept of affordable performance. It also introduced advanced marketing techniques and interesting ways to promote a car. Despite the fact this item is not a specific model, the magazine test between the Ferrari GTO and Pontiac GTO became as legendary as the car itself. The GTO name was borrowed from the Ferrari 250 GTO meaning “Gran Turismo Omologato.”

The name sounded good so Pontiac decided to use it, giving their new model some Italian charm with an exotic flair. Interestingly, the original Pontiac GTO with 360 HP was more powerful than the Ferrari GTO at around 300 HP. Car and Driver magazine thought it would be a great idea to put the two cars to the test in their magazine feature, but their idea proved difficult. They made the Ferrari GTO in just 36 examples, so Ferrari didn’t have a press car to borrow.

The owners of the Ferrari GTO in America were reluctant to give the car to their magazine staff. So, at the end, the editors wrote a hypothetical test article between two cars. Pontiac saw an opportunity, so they supplied the Car and Driver test team with a specially prepared GTO. It had more power and a slightly tuned suspension to achieve better results at the testing.

Despite the shortcomings of the article and the lack of real comparison between the two cars, the piece proved to be highly successful. It established the Pontiac GTO as a hot new car and Car and Driver as the top car magazine in the USA. In those days before the internet and YouTube, the magazine cover was everything. The Ferrari vs. Pontiac article remained as legendary as the cars it reportedly tested against each other.

  1. 1965 Pontiac Tempest GTO

The Pontiac GTO was slightly improved for 1965 with several cosmetic and mechanical changes. From the outside, the car was a little bit bigger, but it retained the same wheelbase. They updated the front fascia and mounted the lights vertically instead of horizontally. Also, the grille was different with the “GTO” badge on the driver’s side.

The even improved the 389 engine, adding high-performance heads and pistons. And they upgraded the base model power to 335 HP. The Tri-Power version produced 360 HP, which affected the performance. Also, the standard 1965 Pontiac GTO could accelerate to 60 mph in just 5.8 seconds.

As a result, the sales more than doubled with the sale of over 75,000 examples. And the enormous success of the GTO inspired other American car companies to introduce similar models. Thanks to the GTO, the muscle car era had officially begun.

  1. 1966 Pontiac GTO

The biggest news for 1966 was when the GTO became a separate model in the Pontiac lineup. This meant that Pontiac as a brand and General Motors as a company recognized the car’s potential. They gave the GTO a shot in establishing its own performance legacy. Also, they redesigned the car with vertically stacked headlights and a new grille and rear end.

Under the hood, the engine’s power output remained the same, although Pontiac introduced a legendary option that became popular in later models: ram air. Ram air was about the working hood scoops that directed air straight to the carburetor.

Although it helped the engine deliver more power, the factory rated ram air models at 360 HP, the same as the stock Tri-Power versions. Pontiac only built 35 Ram Air GTOs and around 300 dealer-installed examples, all of which are highly desirable today.

  1. 1967 Pontiac GTO

The 1967 model year brought some slight design changes to the GTO, but big improvements under the hood. The GTO was still one of the best muscle cars around with high sales numbers and thousands of satisfied customers. However, Pontiac realized they needed to invest in more power and technology to keep the top spot on the market. So, for 1967, they offered a new engine, the 400 V8, which came in three levels of power.

The economy version used a two-barrel carburetor and delivered 265 HP. The standard used a four-barrel carburetor and delivered 335 and the high output had a different setup, producing 360 HP, the same as before, but with a little more torque. Again, the sales were high, so Pontiac built over 81,000 GTOs for the 1967 model year.

  1. 1968 Pontiac GTO

All General Motors A-Body intermediate cars got a thorough restyling for the 1968 model year. Also, Pontiac debuted their all-new, sleeker, semi-fastback GTO with hideaway headlights and a special front bumper. Pontiac called it the “Endura” bumper and it was the GTO’s unique feature. Basically it was polyurethane plastic in the body color that could endure damage and hits without deforming. In fact, it was the predecessor to the modern plastic bumpers.

Under the hood, the engine choice remained the same, but the Ram Air II option became available, allowing the 400 V8 engine to breathe better and produce more power. However, Pontiac rated this motor at 360 HP, the same as a year before. An interesting detail was the hood-mounted tachometer.

Even though the sales of the 1968 GTO were still good at over 87,000 examples, Pontiac realized their competitors had moved onto its market share. Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Ford, Dodge and Plymouth all had muscle cars aimed directly at the GTO.

  1. 1969 Pontiac GTO

The 1969 model year brought several small design changes, but the car and engine choices remained mostly the same. The 400 CID V8 received a Ram Air III option, upgrading the power to 366 HP. However, to defend the GTO’s honor against those Hemis and Cobra Jets, Pontiac introduced a rare, expensive and highly sought after Ram Air IV version they rated at 370 HP.

The horsepower ratings for the Ram Air IV were extremely conservative since the engine featured high flow cylinder heads and a different camshaft, exhaust and carburetor. Basically, it was a race motor for the street.

The real horsepower rating was closer to 450 than to 370 HP but Pontiac chose to list this version as less powerful due to insurance reasons. The 1969 model year saw a slight decline in sales to 72,000 examples. Both the Chevelle 396 SS and the Plymouth Roadrunner posted higher sales numbers, which concerned Pontiac about the future of the GTO.

  1. 1969 Pontiac GTO Judge

Muscle cars started as affordable performance machines with lots of power and reasonable prices. However, due to the high demand, some models started to get more expensive. Soon there was a need for a budget-friendly muscle car for young buyers who wanted a fast car but couldn’t afford much. And the Plymouth Roadrunner was a perfect example of such a model.

It was budget-friendly, fun and fast. Pontiac wanted a similar car, so in 1969, the company presented the GTO Judge. The Judge became a legend in its own right because it took the name from the popular TV show. Also, it was a bright red muscle car with a big spoiler and funky “The Judge” graphics all over it.

The GTO Judge wasn’t slow either with 366 HP and its four-speed transmission. Available from 1969 to 1971, the Judge always represented a top of the line model. And it is still desirable today.

  1. 1970 Pontiac GTO

The year 1970 was an important year for the Pontiac GTO because it brought some important changes to the lineup. First, the car received a design refresh with a new front end and rear bumper and several new options. But the biggest improvement was under the hood. Finally, the GTO and all other General Motors muscle cars received a massive big block after the company lifted the ban on engine size in intermediate cars.

The GTO got a mighty 455 big block while the standard 400 V8 remained as an entry level motor. The base model produced 350 HP, while the 400 Ram Air III delivered 360 HP. And while the 455 pumped out 360 HP, some car historians claim the real power figure was closer to 400 HP.

But the biggest advantage of the new motor was the torque at 500 lb-ft, which propelled the GTO to a respectable 0 to 60 mph and quarter mile times. Sales were declining, mostly due to the tough competition since 1970 was the prime year for muscle cars. Still, Pontiac managed to sell 40,000 examples, 3,797 of which were Judge models.

  1. 1971 Pontiac GTO

Continuing on the same platform, the 1971 GTO received a modest facelift with a different grille and headlights. However, the end was in sight for all muscle cars including the GTO. So, in 1971 all engines received a downgrade in compression ratings and horsepower. The 400 was again the base model, but now they rated it at 255 HP while the 455 as an optional engine received a 260 HP rating.

The top of the line engine option was the 455 High Output, which delivered 310 HP and retained the performance level GTO owners were accustomed to getting. However, as the muscle car segment started to decline, so did the GTO sales. And in 1971, Pontiac managed to move just over 10,000 cars, which was a low number compared to just a few years prior.

  1. 1972-3 Pontiac LeMans GTO

The early ‘70s Pontiac GTO was no longer a separate model, but only an option on the mid-size Le Mans. They shared the same body style with sporty details and a few exterior features. However, for the 1973 model year, they redesigned the GTO, making it closer in appearance to a regular LeMans coupe.

The power was down, so the base 400 and 455 both delivered 250 HP for 1972, although the 455 had much more torque for a better performance. In 1972, a rare engine option was the 455 H.O. producing 300 HP, which you could call a true muscle car. However, in 1973, they dropped the High Output version and the 400 V8 delivered just 230 HP, while the 455 got 250 HP.

  1. 1979 Pontiac Ventura GTO

They downsized the once mighty Pontiac GTO from a separate model to only a trim line option for the 1974 Pontiac Ventura. The Ventura was the smallest and most affordable Pontiac at the moment. Basically, it was a Chevrolet Nova sister model. But it was sad to see the once glorious muscle car downgraded to just a trim level.

In fact, all they did was put some decals on an economy model with a 5.7-liter V8 engine producing only 200 HP. As a result, Pontiac experienced slow sales for the GTO line for a few years. And despite the relative success of the smaller Trans Am/Firebird line, the GTO wasn’t popular enough to justify investing into a separate model.

Most people considered the 1974 GTO to be a pathetic attempt to recapture the former glory of the GTO, but the market didn’t fall for the trick. This was also the final year for the classic GTO nameplate because after producing 7,000, the GTO quietly left the scene.

  1. 1999 Pontiac GTO Concept

Pontiac spent decades producing Firebirds and Trans Am, leaving the GTO to the history books. Sadly, for such a specific muscle car like the original GTO, the market was gone. But most muscle car fans never forgot the timeless style and performance of the GTO, which was the original muscle car.

So, at the 1999 Detroit Auto Show, Pontiac surprised everybody with a fantastic concept they named the GTO. It was a modern, aggressive muscle car that drew a lot of attention from the crowd. Also, it showed Pontiac there was a lot of people who wanted to see the GTO make a comeback. The GTO concept was a pure styling exercise, but General Motors realized they had a market niche they could fill.

  1. 2004-06 Pontiac GTO

Pontiac got the message with the success of the GTO Concept in 1999. But the biggest problem was that they planned to discontinue the Firebird/Trans Am, so there was no appropriate platform or design to base the GTO on. Pontiac and General Motors didn’t have the time or money to invest in a new platform, so GM looked to its subsidiaries, finding the perfect car in Australia.

Holden, GM’s Australian branch, produced a rear wheel drive muscle car they called the Monaro. It sat on a modern chassis with an independent rear suspension and disc brakes. They produced it with a sleek two-door body just like the original GTO. GM’s plan was to import the Monaro to the USA and rebadge it as a GTO. But things didn’t work out as they planned.

The first year for the modern GTO was 2004 and the car received universal praise from the buyers and the car press. The design wasn’t new or aggressive, but the GTO had the muscle car form and street presence. Under the hood was the LS1 5.7-liter V8 with 350 HP, delivering enough performance to be one of the hottest American cars for 2004. The target sales figure was 18,000 and Pontiac sold almost 14,000, which was a success.

Pontiac presented the 400 HP 6.2-liter engine, delivering a better performance in 2005. Although it had a 0 to 60 mph time of just 4.6 seconds, sales started to decline to 11,000. For 2006, the final model year, they sold just 14,000. The car didn’t excite customers like the original GTO. The design was restrained and not aggressive. Although it was fast, as an overall package, the new GTO didn’t appeal to drivers. And that was the main reason for its early demise.

  1. Royal Bobcat GTO

One of the best stories of how dealerships and major manufacturers combined their efforts to promote, build and race muscle cars is the tale of Ace Wilson’s Royal Pontiac dealership from Royal Oak, Michigan. He established the dealership in the late ‘50s and put it on the map by sponsoring and preparing local drag racing Pontiac. And he did that with the help of Pontiac’s marketing guru, Jim Wangers.

When Pontiac started racing and building performance machines on a bigger scale in the early ‘60s, Royal Pontiac was the company that helped prepare and test the car. However, the popularity of Royal Pontiac exploded with the GTO. In fact, Ace Wilson prepared all the GTOs before sending them to magazine testers.

Jim Wangers knew the magazine testers needed to be blown away with the performance of the new GTO. So, he instructed Ace Wilson to install the mighty 421 V8 and disguise it as a 389 V8. The trick worked and the legend of the GTO was born.

  1. Arnie Beswick’s GTO Drag Car

The main arena for those classic muscle cars was the drag strip. And since the GTO was the first proper muscle car, they often used it for racing. One of the most popular and widely recognized racing GTOs was Arnie Beswick’s “Farmer” GTO. It was a wildly-colored and brutally fast car.

Beswick first started racing in the stock car class. But by the end of the ‘60s, he had evolved into the funny car class with a Plexiglas body GTO. It also had a custom chassis and supercharged engine. Although he never had big sponsors, he was able to keep the red GTO up there with the factory teams, winning many races.

  1. 1971 GTO Judge Convertible

The Pontiac GTO was always a popular and a strong seller. But with so many competitors in the early ‘70s, sales were down. They continued the popular Judge version they introduced in 1969 for 1971. It featured big block 455 V8 engine, crazy graphics and a big spoiler on the trunk, which was wild for the 1971 model year.

Since the displacement limit was higher, intermediate cars from GM could have the biggest engines available. So, they gave the GTO a 455 big block V8 they rated at 335 HP. Although that’s a modest number compared to earlier GTOs, in 1971 Detroit moved from DIN to SAE horsepower ratings, which lowered the numbers.

Because the Judge version was relatively expensive, it didn’t sell as well as before. Also, the convertible cost $4,000 over the base price, which was a lot of money back then. And that is why they only built 17 GTO Judge 455 convertibles that year, making it one of the rarest GTOs and muscle cars they ever created.

  1. 2004 Pontiac GTO Ram Air Concept

The market was eager to see the new GTO in 2004 and Pontiac added to the excitement with their 2004 Ram Air Concept. From the outside, it was only the bright orange color that showed this was a special car since most of its unique features were underneath the body.

The power came from a special 389 V8 that pumped out 575 HP. The engine was mated to a six-speed manual transmission. Also, the performance figures were astonishing. Unfortunately, the orange Ram Air GTO remained just a concept car.

  1. Pontiac GTO from The Punisher

As a legendary muscle model, they used the GTO in many movies. But one of the most popular was the 1969 GTO they used in the action movie, The Punisher. In most movies, you see shiny and well-prepared examples, but in this film, the main character drives a rugged street fighter car that is far from perfect, but cool because of its flaws.

  1. Pontiac GTO from XXX

The 2002 action movie, XXX brought the classic 1967 Pontiac GTO back to the spotlight for car and movie fans alike. They equipped the dark purple GTO with weapons, as well as some tasteful modifications like the intake on the hood and side pipe exhaust. The look and the stance of this classic GTO make it one of the legends of the muscle car world and movie history.

Now you know much more about the legendary Pontiac GTO. It was the car that started it all, which makes it an important part of muscle car and motoring history.

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